The impossible happened last night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, just as it does every time Metallica arrives in any town in America. After sets by two opening bands and a DJ who warmed the crowd up with selections from System of a Down and Motörhead, chopping and scratching Lemmy Kilmister’s voice as if he were an East Coast hip-hop MC, the lights went down. The towering projector screens behind the stage went up, flanked on either side by giant arching sculptural versions of the M and A from Metallica’s iconic logo. A dusty rumpled cowboy appeared onscreen, scampering through a graveyard that bore a remarkable resemblance to the cover of Metallica’s 1986 third album Master of Puppets. Prerecorded strings began to swell. Suddenly, a stadium full of rowdy metal fans in shorts and cutoff t-shirts was singing sweetly along to a lead vocal part that could have easily been pulled from a piece of 19th-century classical music, like hooligans awaiting the world’s most sophisticated football club.
The movie we were watching was The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. The music was “The Ecstasy of Gold,” from Ennio Morricone’s classic score, which Metallica has used as WWE-style entrance music at its shows since 1983. Most bands would struggle to live up to such a weighty introduction, but not Metallica. Early in the night, they played “Fuel,” the third single from what is generally regarded by fans as one of the weakest albums in their catalog. Rather than treat the song as setlist filler, Metallica turned it into one of the biggest productions of the night, with a blinding solo from lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and pyrotechnics large enough to warm the air in the bleachers erupting from every corner of the stage.
Over the next two hours, there were fireworks, short narrative films about old men and brutal fight clubs, a simulated war complete with realistic helicopter sound effects. When the band played Master of Puppets’ nearly nine-minute title track, frontman-guitarist James Hetfield only had to sing about half the words–the crowd filled in the rest for him–and a huge set of hands wielding marionette strings appeared above drummer Lars Ulrich’s head, directing the action from above. It became clear that this was no ordinary rock show, with quotidian concerns like dancing and catchy choruses. This was a spectacle more akin to Wagnerian opera.
After Death Magnetic and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, two well-received albums that followed a string of clunkers and intra-band dysfunction, Metallica is currently riding more goodwill than they’ve had in years. They seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company onstage. Hetfield wore a leather vest and pants, looking like the leader of a biker gang but firing off goofily earnest stage banter like a beloved high school teacher. Hammett, in a black polka-dotted dress shirt, with his trademark curly locks starting to gray, could have passed as a Las Vegas magician. The band avoided Death Magnetic material, but peppered their set with several selections from Hardwired. And though not every new song hit with the same force as the classics, several sounded just fine: “Hardwired” was a fierce and invigorating opener, and the powerfully melodic “Moth Into Flame” could become a concert fixture on future tours.
Like any thrash metal band, Metallica makes body-moving music. But they’re several decades removed from playing to sweaty teens in nightclubs, and there’s something lost watching them perform from the stands on the other side of a football field, where the closest you can get to moshing is furiously bopping your head in appreciation. Metallica has done an admirable job of translating their music for the stadium, however, and some of the night’s most bizarrely compelling moments were clearly designed to reach the cheap seats. At one point, a set of four wooden percussion instruments materialized onstage as if from nowhere, large enough to make the grown men who would soon be beating on them in a campus quad-style drum circle look like small children. Later, Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo stood toe-to-toe at the front of the stage for some unaccompanied duet riffage that had no clear purpose other than the obvious pleasure it was bringing to the two men rocking out together. After that, Trujillo played “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth),” a psych-wah bass solo that was the calling card of Cliff Burton, Metallica’s original low-end man. When the screens played slow-mo footage of a headbanging Burton, who died in a tour bus accident in 1986, it was enough to momentarily give you goosebumps.
Sunday was Mother’s Day, and the crowd at MetLife was overwhelmingly male. I spent the final moments of the show searching for metal moms who were spending their evening listening to thrash, and met Lisa, a mother of two adult children who’s been a Metallica fan since their ‘80s heyday. “This is mine and her father’s music,” she said, nodding at her college-aged daughter, who wore a black Misfits t-shirt. “She grew up on it. That’s why we’re here.”
Hetfield made multiple references between songs to “Metallica family,” meaning the community of fans who’d gathered around the world and in the stadium that night. Though many of the band’s projected visuals were seemingly political–Banksy-style marching soldiers with cartoon skulls for heads, stylized footage of black bloc protesters facing off against militarized riot cops–Hetfield made clear that Metallica does not discriminate amongst its fans, no matter what religion they follow or politicians they voted for. It felt at times like the band was trying to have it both ways: adopting the image of anti-authoritarianism while raking in money and declining to grapple concretely with the country’s tumultuous politics. Metallica frequently nods and glances at big issues, but for better or worse, the band treats the heaviness of the world and the heaviness of its music as distinctly separate.
After Hetfield’s speech about the apolitical nature of Metallica, they launched into 1984’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”–in my humble opinion, the finest song in their catalog, which means it probably deserves a spot near the top of the all-time metal hall of fame. “You’re here. You’re Metallica family. Are you with us?” he asked before they hit the song’s thundering opening riff, but he knew the crowd’s shouted answer in advance. Who could say no to that?